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Protests grow in Argentina against its right-wing leader's economic 'shock therapy'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

On to Argentina, where this week, police broke up protests in Buenos Aires with water cannons. A series of strikes have gripped the country as opposition grows to President Milei's economic policies. The right-wing populist won an upset victory in November and vowed to deliver what he called economic shock therapy. We're joined now by Daniel Politi, a freelance journalist in Buenos Aires. Thanks for being with us.

DANIEL POLITI: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: What changes has President Milei carried out? How serious is the opposition?

POLITI: Well, President Milei really is attempting a wholesale reform of Argentine society, and he came into power as a libertarian, espousing the idea that the government was at the root of all of Argentina's problems. And now he's pursuing efforts to deregulate the economy, slash state spending and impose a series of austerity measures that includes slashing the network of subsidies.

And you asked about opposition, and he is facing quite a bit of opposition in Congress. He's a clear minority there. His allies don't have as many seats to get all his ambitious reform passed. And he's also facing opposition in the streets, where this week, there were leaders of social organizations that paralyzed much of downtown Buenos Aires for a few hours when they were protesting the government's moves to slash social safety nets. They say they're receiving a lot less food for soup kitchens at a time when demand is soaring. The next day, bus drivers paralyzed much of the capital amid a strike, complaining that their salaries were not keeping up with inflation that's soaring.

SIMON: Well, and let me ask you about inflation 'cause it arguably is the issue that brought President Milei to office. But it's become worse since he's taken over, hasn't it?

POLITI: Yeah. I mean, inflation really did soar particularly strongly in the first weeks of his presidency. That was not a surprise. He did win the election on a platform to end inflation, but he had warned that inflation would get worse when he came into office. In part, that was a defensive move by many companies, private sector retailers. They didn't know what to expect, so they defensively raised prices. But it also meant his deregulation of many sectors led to prices soaring on things like health insurance and cellphone services. But the truth is that - so far, at least - the Argentine public seems to be giving him the benefit of the doubt.

Surveys show he continues to enjoy a honeymoon period, that he hangs on to much of the support that brought him into office in the first place. He's asked Argentines for patience, saying they'll have to experience some pain now to come out the other side and after years of what he says is mismanagement of government spending that led to this inflation problem getting worse. Argentina, as you know, has one of the world's worst inflation rates. And he points to how inflation has, in fact, been decelerating a bit in the past few weeks as proof that his plan is working.

SIMON: And...

POLITI: For now, at least, Argentina seems to be on board.

SIMON: And, of course, he's become acclaimed in much of the global right. He's in the U.S., currently on his third trip in four months. Why? Why was it important to him to come to the United States? And I gather he's meeting with Elon Musk.

POLITI: Yeah. I mean, the truth is, in part, his trips have to do with personal issues regarding an affinity towards Judaism that Milei has, although he isn't formally Jewish. But beyond that, Milei, who has always said he's an avowed admirer of former President Trump, he came into power saying that Argentina needed to boost its ties with the United States, move away from years of what had been increasing alliances with Russia and China. And he wants to send a message that a new era has dawned in Argentina, and he's hoping to parlay that popularity into concrete investments.

You mentioned Elon Musk. He has characterized himself as a huge fan of Milei, and there's lots of speculation that Musk could be interested in Argentina's hugely untapped potential for lithium, for example.

SIMON: Daniel Politi is reporting from Buenos Aires. Thanks so much for being with us this morning.

POLITI: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.

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